Friday, October 26, 2012

Kitsch, the Anti-Cultural Commodity

The essence of art, its final end, is to explain to man his own nature, what it means to be human.   Any art which does not have this for its end cannot truly be called "fine art."  Art, however, that  is created for the sole purpose of being sold in the market cannot, in an unqualified sense, be called true art, since it does not share the same final end.  Now this sort of art, which has for its end the pure utilitarian end of the maker, is called kitsch.  Kitsch, as reader Bob pointed out, can be defined as "the reduction of art to marketable forms." 

Graceland by Thomas Kinkade
Every part of kitsch is ordered toward the end of being sold, so every part of a work of kitsch is calculated to be more palatable to the marketplace. Kitsch uses conventional forms, motifs and even symbols only in so far as they make the particular work of art more marketable.  Clement Greenberg in his essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch (from which I draw heavily from) remarks that kitsch uses as "raw material the debased and academized simulacra of genuine culture."  The preservation of a cultural memory, or consciousness of "what we are," as I described before, is not the end of this art but rather something akin to the utilitarian end of making money.

Kitsch, Greenberg continues, "borrows from [culture] tricks, stratagems, themes...[and] converts them into a system and discards the rest."  Kitsch sees the products of a culture only as a component to be drawn from, not as a "good thing" in and of themselves.  The "art" of kitsch then is only an art of the most basic sense of making something, just like the art of pouring a concrete sidewalk, or making a chair.  This most basic sense is primarily concerned with its utilitarian end (i.e. making a place to sit or walk), and if it elevates itself to something to the level of poetry, it does so only accidentally.  Greenberg confirms this saying "nor is every item of kitsch entirely worthless.  Now and then it produces something of merit" but these are only "accidental or isolated instances."

Kitsch though may be thought of as some sort of folk art, but as Greenberg argues, kitsch is merely a replacement for the folk art lost by rural people living now in cities as a result of the industrial revolution.  "Discovering a new capacity for boredom ... the new urban masses set up a pressure on society to provide them with some kind of culture fit for their own consumption. To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised:  ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensitive to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide." [emphasis added] 

Kitsch, the art of a mass-culture is not something that falls on the spectrum of art as poetry, that spectrum between folk art, and high art.  By and large, even though there may be "isolated instances", kitsch cannot provide that consolation that only true culture can, through beauty and symbolism and rich traditions, that gives meaning to the important moments of our lives.  One need only think of those jarring moments when a cell phone jingle goes off in church, worst of all during a funeral. These are moments where the market cannot give us what we really need in our souls.  Kitsch does not have for its end the poetic imitation which leads to a fuller understanding of man and his place in the universe, which is the proper end of culture, both high and low.  

Catholic Mall Chapel, a fine thing,
but somehow seems out of place.
I'm reminded of a story I read about a Catholic chapel in a shopping mall.  The priests would say Mass, and hear Confession, but something about the mall made them hesitate to ever hold a wedding there, not to mention a funeral. It is as if the overwhelming materialism of the mall, entirely ordered towards consumption seems so alien to those parts of life where symbolism and culture are so essential to our very human existence.

Curiously though, this same feeling of alienation is felt less about a funeral on a city street, at least streets in our older cities.   Perhaps this is because even though commerce and all rank of ordinary things happen there, there remains something about the city as a community, that says these things are proper to this public place. The city is the product of culture par-excellance, the place where architecture, art, sculpture and public ceremony all come together where a culture can best express what we are. This notion of cultural identity, this notion of belonging, is cultivated by the arts, and is reinforced by customs and conventions, but it is today under constant assault -- first of all by the assault of kitsch, but also the assault of the avant-garde modernism. This is something I looked at briefly before, when talking about the city stripped of symbolism.  In the next series of posts, I want to look at the relation of modern art to culture, and its relation to kitsch, in so far as it too is an art which is at its essence anti-cultural.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Further Thoughts on High Culture and Folk Culture and Art

In my last post I talked a great deal about the art of "high culture" and "folk culture" in regards to their relation to the classical and vernacular in architecture.   The distinction that I was drawing was not to show that high and low culture are in opposition to each other, but rather are a matter of variation of degree.   Both high and low culture, classical and vernacular art, all deal with the same subject, namely cultural memory or the maintenance of shared ideas of self-identification.    From very simple traditions of a household, the baking of traditional meals for birthdays and holidays, to the triumphant hymn of a national anthem, the art and architecture of a capitol, every one of these things seeks to express though through varied degrees, "this is who we are."

The nature of a folk culture is of course defined by its having risen from the people itself, the folk, where local traditions, and family traditions lead to an art which is particular to a certain people, place or a even family.   High culture, which arises from the folk culture, is culture which has been subjected to intellectual and philosophical examination.   Rather than traditions of culture and art being simply passed on to the next generation, high culture places itself under to study and criticism in order to make it better, finer and more sophisticated.   Moreover, this sophistication allows it to be appreciated outside of a particular cultural context, it begins to be appreciated by everyone.

Thus art that is produced by high culture is transformed from a simple local art, into a universal art that begins to transcend the particularities of place and people, and is thus the only sort of art that can become a "national" art.   The universality of the art is what allows people from all over the world to enjoy the works of Mozart and Bach, even without having been a part of that particular central European Germanic culture from which the art arose.   Certainly though, had one come from that particular culture from which this high culture arose from, the art would be even more meaningful.

High culture produces an art that tends toward universality, but yet maintains that same goal of culture, to say "this is who we are," and consequently its art strives too for that universality.  Folk culture and its art says "this is what it means to be a Dutchman" or "this is what it means to be a member of such and such family."  High culture strives to say "this is what it means  to be man" (in other words in an unqualified sense).   This difference between universality and particularity is what I spoke of in earlier posts in dealing with art and politics.   Art geared towards politics is necessarily geared towards the particular, but it loses its meaning in the universal flow of history.  Great art, though even if it is political, is geared towards the great universals and it thus has constant appeal.

This is not to say however that Folk art loses its appeal through time, far from it.    The art of a folk culture is expressive of a particular culture's understanding of the same universal longing to understand "what we are."  This, coupled with transcendent notions of beauty which all true art strives for, for instance the same tonal system of music is found both in the folk song Greensleeves,  as it is in Mozart's Requiem, gives all true art a.   The level complexity and the precision of the music is the only difference between them, telling us they are in essence the same thing.   So too in poetry, as the works of Homer, Dante and Shakespeare represent the best of a high culture, the simplicity of the poetry of those same folk tunes can tell us just as much about what it means to be a human being.

But yet this universal nature of art and high culture only goes so far, we need only look to where cultures across the globe have interacted to see the limits of cultural universalism.  So too in architecture, where attempts to introduce classical Roman styles of architecture in foreign lands with highly developed native cultures, seem severely out of place.   One need only listen in the West to traditional Japanese or Chinese music to see where the limits lie.   Certainly one can come to know and understand and even love Chinese pentatonic music (it uses only five notes instead of the Western eight) but if we were to try to introduce it into a cultural setting in America, we would only see it as a charming "theme." 

The "theme" would of course be a farce, as there would be nothing that connects Chinese traditional music as "belonging"for instance to a traditional Christmas party.  The idea of cultural "themes" can best be seen in context of amusement parks, or "theme parks" which accumulate architecture of different places all into one park.   A park such as this seems cheesy and "kitschy" because the cultural artifacts that it reproduces are all out of place.   Its like a man walking into a bar in New York in a cowboy hat, chaps and spurs, where he would be entirely silly, while doing the same in Texas might be an everyday appearance.  The idea of things being "out of place" is the essence of kitsch, which I intend to explore in the next post.  In particular, I am interested in how kitsch relates to the ideas of the avante-garde in modernist art.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Are McMansions Classical or Vernacular?

In architecture there is a distinction often made between the classical, made by the most highly educated architects, and the vernacular, the common stuff built by ordinary people.  This distinction is understood most correctly as a spectrum between the two extremes rather than a simple dichotomy.  However one has a problem when trying to place particular buildings in this spectrum, especially where the building in question is a typical American suburban home, or "McMansion."

The typically overblown details in a suburban "McMansion"
The suburban house hardly fits in the realm of the classical, as it is often badly proportioned and badly detailed.  It has little thought put into its design, rarely are architects involved in designing such houses.  Nor does it seem to fall in the vernacular, as the suburban house doesn't follow any local building traditions.  Rather it picks and chooses from a number of different marketed styles.  The typical suburban house then seems to fall somewhere outside of the spectrum of the classical to the vernacular in architecture.  This is because the classical and vernacular are products of the same thing, high and low culture, and the suburban house, is a product of another thing entirely, that of mass culture.  

Folk culture, and its corresponding art, the vernacular, is the simplest expression of a culture, and its principles.  Folk culture is the expression of belonging, of home, of a sense of identity that is carried through a common understanding of the basic principles of life, those of love, family, justice and order and beauty.   Filtered filtered through generations of tradition, folk culture takes on a particular identity that is tied with a people and the places they live.   

High culture and its corresponding art, the classical, is an expression of that same folk culture, but one that is informed by an education and deliberation.   High culture is one trained in philosophy and history, and therefore is able to push the bounds of the principles of the culture.   High culture and folk culture both are reciprocally is informed and educated by the other.  One can see this in the common use of themes from folk music in the works of classical composers.  The composer takes the folk melody and expands it, makes it more complex and intricate and intellectual, but all the while still works within the culture of the folk.  Thus the classical and the vernacular fall in the same spectrum, precisely because they are expressions of the same culture, though it is the understanding by different degrees of that shared culture.

Mass culture on the other hand is concerned primarily with the market.  Mass culture often takes things from both the folk and the high culture but it jumbles them together in a mass of confusion.    In folk and high culture, the cultural artifacts that belong to the culture, that are valued by the culture, are those that are shaped by tradition in folk culture, and by reason and tradition in high culture.  In mass culture the cultural artifacts that are most valued are those that sell the most.   What sells most is usually what is marketed and advertised most, and is mass produced not by a culture interested in preserving its roots, but a company interested in its profits.

Mass culture produces products that essentially have no cultural reference, as they neither come from nor are marketed towards a culture as a culture, but as a market.  And since markets exist all around the globe, each is treated essentially the same.  This is the great problem of globalization, the marketing of products that drown out a local culture by the influx of cheap products, a local cuisine drowned out by the burgers and fries of McDonald's.  It is not folk or high culture that is globalized but mass culture.

McDonalds in Florence. 
Mass culture in the center of high culture
The McMansion is like the burger stand, it does not arise from a culture, either high or low, but arises instead from a marketing strategy.  It appeals in some ways to cultural relevancy, but not in any way that refers to a true cultural identity.  The typical suburban house is not cultural, and therefore not classical or vernacular, but is anti-cultural.  Art of this sort could pop up anywhere just like a McDonald's, as we see now in China, where American style suburbs are sprouting everywhere, but nowhere does it have any relation to its cultural or architectural surroundings.

This is the fundamental problem of kitsch.  Kitsch an art which is out of place in its surroundings, this is art produced by the mass culture.   This is art purely for the market, and mass culture is anti-culture, kitsch is anti-art.  And as kitsch is anti-art and anti culture, so too is the avante-garde.   I want to take a bit of time to talk about the avante-garde in relation to kitsch, so I will come back to this in the next post.